There are two major sects in Islam, Sunni and Shia. Sunni are the largest group, roughly 85% of the Muslim world
The Sunni Muslim world is dominated by four major Madhaahib, or Schools of Thought.
The Madhhab are not sects; the basic beliefs between them are essentially the same. What differs is their approach to Fiqh, or Islamic Law.
Shias are a different sect because some of their fundamental beliefs differ vastly from Sunnis.
Also, the word “Shia” means sect.
Sunni And Shi’ite
Sunnis and Shia both share the same beliefs about Islamic monotheism, and the Prophethood of Muhammad. Both also accept the Quran as the word of Allah, and practice the same five pillars of Islam.
The Shia accept most of the beliefs that Sunnis have. But there are some very fundamental Shia beliefs that Sunnis do not accept.
Shi’ites believe that most of the companions betrayed Prophet Muhammad after he died. They also hold a very high opinion of Ali and some members of his family that is near the level of Prophethood.
In some extreme cases, Ali is raised to the level of divinity.
Shi’ites also believe that all laws must come from certain members of Ali’s descendants called Imams.
These beliefs are not accepted by Sunnis which leads to the Shia being a different sect.
The Sunni Schools of Thought differ in the various day to day implementation of Islamic laws. But not in any fundamental beliefs.
That’s why a person who follows the Hanafi School of Thought would not have a problem making prayer behind an Imam from the Maliki School of Thought. But both a Maliki and a Hanafi would have problems praying behind someone from the Shia sect.
The Schools of Thought would differ on the rules of Islamic practices, but not on Islamic beliefs. Perhaps the most visible example is the prayer.
Each School of Thought has slight variations in the prayer, although the overall performance of the prayer is almost the same.
The prayers of a Shafii would have the same movements, sequence of movements, and words, as the prayer of a Hanbali.
But there may be differences in minor things such as the placement of the hands.
Where Did the Islamic Schools of Thought Come From?
The Schools of Thought developed over time. And even though there are four major schools now, there have been many more over the years.
Of course, there were no Schools of Thought during the early days of Islam. Neither Prophet Muhammad nor his companions followed any specific Madhhab.
Everyone followed the Madhhab of Prophet Muhammad.
After the Prophet died, Islam began to spread rapidly in various conquests of the Persian and Byzantine Empires. As Islam came into contact with more civilizations, more circumstances came around that required Islamic legal answers.
At this time, with most of the companions still alive, they used consensus, or ijma’, to decide on legal matters. And since most of the companions lived in the major centers of the Islamic world, it was relatively easy to come to a consensus.
But despite all of this, very few companions actually made legal decisions. If a companion was asked about the legality of something, they would usually refer the questioner to another companion.
At this time, when the Caliph was a companion also, the ruler could overrule the suggestions or consensus of the companions. If so, the Caliph’s ruling would be put into practice immediately.
Essentially, the head of state (Caliph) was also the head of the religion.
But all of this changed when Ali was assassinated.
Islamic Law and the Umayyad Caliphate
The death of Ali marked the end of the era of the Righteous Caliphs. The Umayyad dynasty that followed Ali was a hereditary monarchy.
The Caliphs during this were often corrupt. There were also more fractions, civil unrest, and rebellions. This led to various groups attempting to use Islam to legitimize their agendas.
The leading Islamic scholars of this era refused to associate with the Caliphs and other political leaders. The politicians wanted to manipulate the scholars to suite themselves.
To resist this, more and more scholars moved away from the larger cities and into more rural areas away from political control.
However, these scholars now had less contact with each other meaning it would be much more difficult to have a consensus on legal matters.
Sources of Islamic Law
Hence, many of these scholars had to rely on their own independent deduction, called ijtihad.
Ijtihad means to make laws using deduction from the original sources.
There are basically three sources of Islamic law: Quran, Sunnah, and Ijmah, or consensus.
Most of the issues faced by Muslims then and now, do not have a direct answer in the Quran or Sunnah, nor is there a consensus.
If a scholar was approached with a unique legal question, his only recourse was to use evidence from these sources to deduce an answer.
This ijtihad, deducing laws from the original legal sources, is what ultimately led to the Schools of Thought.
As certain scholars attracted more students, they would increase in popularity.
As they became more popular, they would also attract more questions from more people about the legality of different issues.
And these questions led the scholars to do more deducting, ijtihad, in order to come up with answers.
Some scholars became very popular and attracted a large following. When they died, depending on the politics of the time, and the dedication of their students, their teachings could either flourish or die out.
Those scholars whose methodology and teachings were adopted by a local governor or ruler, tended to flourish. But those that did not, have mostly died out.
Initially, the founders of these Schools of Thought were very flexible. If they learned that another scholar had a different opinion, and their evidence was valid, they would quickly change their position.
Islamic Law And The Abbasid Caliphate
But during the Abbasid Caliphate, they dynasty that overthrew and followed the Umayyads, these Schools of Thought became more rigid.
The government began to keep scholars on retainer. This shifted the dynamic away from the rural scholar.
The major city centers became the best places to obtain an Islamic education. This also made it easier for students to travel between cities and learn under different scholars.
But this also led to more religious debates.
One of the most popular forms of entertainment during this era was religious debates between Islamic scholars. Two scholars would debate an issue before the ruler, and the winner would get a prize.
These debates had two negative effects.
- It forced participants to become more rigid and inflexible in defending their positions.
- It led to a lot of hypothetical fiqh where scholars would debate issues that had no bearing in life.
While these debates were inadvertently encouraging rigidity, the students of the major scholars were also compiling their teachers’ works.
The Schools Become More Rigid
This compilation led to a proliferation of Islamic literature, but also contributed to rigidity within a School of Thought.
There were also two approaches to Fiqh: reasoning and literalism.
The reasoning approach believes that there must be a reason behind every hadith and verse of Quran.
But the literalist approach discouraged trying to find the reason behind hadiths and Quran and just accept them.
In this, we can see the origin of the Sufi-Salafi divide today.
By now, there were also more sources of Islamic law.
During the time of Righteous Caliphs, it was just Quran, Sunnah, and the consensus of the companions.
But now there was also Qiyas, legal preferences, and local customs.
Qiyas is similar to ijtimah because it also requires deducing from the sources. But Qiyas compares similarities and comes to a conclusion accordingly.
An example of Qiyas is the legality of recreational drugs. Most of these drugs did not exist in the Prophet’s time and there is nothing in the Quran or Sunnah referring to them.
The Quran does forbid drinking wine which intoxicates. We can use Qiyas to extend that ruling to similar items that also intoxicate, including recreational drugs.
The Four Schools of Thought
There are currently four major schools of thought in the Sunni Islamic world.
There is also one school of thought that straddles Sunni and Shi’ite (Zaydi), and another that is exclusively Shi’ite (Jafari).